How America’s First Women Voters Lost the Franchise

The president’s claim that voters “put on a different shirt, come in, and vote again” echoed an odd 19th-century episode.

An 1869 engraving of women voting in Wyoming, where women were granted equal voting rights on December 10, 1869
An 1869 engraving of women voting in Wyoming, where women were granted equal voting rights on December 10, 1869 (Associated Press)

In an interview Wednesday with The Daily Caller, President Donald Trump made two startling assertions regarding voter fraud. The first was that you need a voter-ID card to buy cereal. It’s the kind of claim that is called “unsubstantiated” when it is made by the president, and that would be called “absolutely bananas” if it were made by your uncle instead. (Bananas, incidentally, are something else the president claims you need voter ID to buy.)

At least the grocery-based line of argument is original. President Trump’s second ridiculous voter-fraud claim has a long and far more insidious history. In fact, a version of it played an integral role in one of America’s earliest, and most blatant, attacks on voting rights.

It’s worth reading, or rereading, the president’s full accusation, in full: “People get in line that have absolutely no right to vote and they go around in circles. Sometimes they go to their car, put on a different hat, put on a different shirt, come in, and vote again.” An image so preposterous is difficult to take seriously. The president might as well have said Democrats sneak into polling places by shuffling behind a portable cartoon hedge.

Yet it was precisely this argument—the notion that a simple costume change could enable widespread fraud—that helped disenfranchise the women of New Jersey some 200 years ago.

New Jersey was the most enlightened of the original 13 states where voting rights were concerned. It allowed free African Americans to vote and was the only state to extend voting rights to women in its constitution. By contemporary standards, this attempt at women’s suffrage was paltry—because New Jersey had property requirements for voting and married women could not legally own property, only single women managing a household could cast a ballot. Still, by the standards of the age, the Garden State was doing something unique and shocking. Voting was to the Jersey girls of the early 1800s what leopard print is to Jersey girls of today.

At first, as the historians Judith Apter Klinghoffer and Lois Elkis document in their article “The Petticoat Electors,” Jersey politicians enthusiastically courted women’s votes. Typical was the enthusiastic yet condescending toast offered in Bloomfield: to “the Republican fair; may their patriotic conduct in the late elections add an irresistible zest to their charms.”

But the woman’s vote was not evenly distributed between the parties: Starting around the turn of the 19th century, women began reliably choosing John Adams’s Federalists over Thomas Jefferson’s Republicans (no relation to the modern-day party).

Nor was that the old New Jersey Republican Party’s only problem. A series of parochial power struggles had driven a wedge between liberal Republicans in the northern part of the state and moderate Republicans in the south. To bring the two sides back together before the 1808 presidential election, a compromise was proposed: Northerners got a new courthouse in Newark, and southerners got a bill raising property requirements for voting. Chucking lower-income, Republican-leaning voters from the pool, however, required party leaders to find a Federalist-leaning bloc of voters to balance them out. Women, along with African Americans, were the perfect targets. The state legislature in 1807 booted both groups from the voting rolls.

America’s first women voters didn’t lose the franchise because of sexism. They lost the franchise because a party wanted to win an election, and women’s votes stood in the way.

But here’s the important thing, at least as far as today’s political climate is concerned. Anti-women’s-suffrage leaders never admitted that they were rewriting the rules for their party’s benefit. Instead, they came up with an excuse. And that excuse was voter fraud. In 1802, when Republicans lost a state legislative seat by a single vote, they claimed a married woman and a female slave had cast fraudulent votes for the Federalist candidate. In fact, the first woman was separated from her husband, and the second was free. If politicians were ashamed to find their claims “unsubstantiated,” their apologies were never recorded.

In 1806, there was even a claim that could have fit right in with Trump’s Daily Caller interview. Men, some said, were voting in trousers, changing into dresses, and then, as “ladies,” voting again. Interestingly but perhaps not surprisingly, the supposed epidemic of election-stealing cross-dressers was cited as a reason not for disenfranchising the men who were cheating, but the women whose clothing was being used to cheat. Not long after, when Assemblyman Lewis Condict rose to speak in favor of curtailing voting rights, he framed the bill as an anti-corruption measure.

One can only imagine how out of place Condict would feel in today’s New Jersey. (For one thing, he wouldn’t know his exit on the Turnpike.) But he would feel right at home in Trump’s Washington, watching the president’s campaign to discredit scores of voters. He would immediately recognize the strategy—and the effectiveness—of pretending to defend the integrity of elections in order to rig them.

False claims of electoral fraud are as old as our democracy itself. President Trump might even say they’re as American as voter-ID requirements for apple pie.